Agenda item

Review of Libraries Public Consultation - Phase One

The Scrutiny & Overview Committee is asked to review the information provided from the first stage of the Libraries Public Consultation and is asked for its feedback on the following:-

1.            The consultation activities undertaken so far.

2.            Options for achieving the savings target within the Libraries service.


The Scrutiny & Overview Committee considered a report from the Cabinet Member for Culture and Regeneration, Councillor Oliver Lewis, setting out the findings from the first phase of the libraries consultation and asked for the Committee’s views on the options due to be put forward for the second phase.

During the introduction to the report, the Cabinet Member advised the Committee that the budget agreed by Council on 8 March had set a savings target of £500,000 from a £3.5m budget for the Libraries service. Potential options for achieving these savings, including the possible closure of five libraries, a consultation on the way forward had started earlier this year.  The results of that consultation, along with proposals for the next phase of consultation, were presented to the Committee for its input and any recommendations arising from the discussion of this item would be submitted to the Cabinet.

Elizabeth Ash, a representative from the Save Croydon Libraries Campaign (SCLC), had been invited to address the Committee by the Chair, to present the views of SCLC on the proposals. It was advised that in the view of SCLC insufficient information had been provided with the consultation to allow an informed response, which had resulted in a flawed process that should not move forward. Furthermore, by carrying out the consultation during the pandemic and without contacting library users, it further invalidated the outcome. The consultation seemed to be unfairly focused toward a delivery model that used volunteer run services, rather than being open to all options. There were a number of other concerns raised about the consultation process, such as the quality and consistency of the information provided, the lack of communication about the extension to the consultation deadline and the perceived lack of regard to equalities.  In conclusion, any reduction of the library service was viewed as a false economy, which would have far reaching consequence for the borough.

The Cabinet Member thanked the representative from SCLC for their contribution and acknowledged it was important to provide an opportunity for all contributors to input into the consultation process. In response to the comments from SCLC it was highlighted that the Council had worked with the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport to ensure the consultation process complied with best practice. There had been a good level of response to the consultation with over 2000 responses received and the various options suggested in the report demonstrated that it had been a genuine consultation. By running the consultation in two phases, it provided the Council with the opportunity to take on board ideas from the public on how best to achieve the savings the Council was required to deliver.

Prior to questioning the Cabinet Member, the Chair re-emphasised that the £500,000 budget saving had been approved as part of the budget setting process. As such it was outside of the scope set for the Committee, which was to provide comment on the consultation process and the options being put forward for the second phase of the consultation. 

In response to question about whether the budget of £3.5m for the service included maintenance costs, it was advised that the budget covered the running costs for the service. The maintenance of library buildings was covered under a separate maintenance contract.  The Council had continued to be responsible for repairs and maintenance when the service was managed by Carillion, but the buildings had not been maintained to a satisfactory level. When the library service was brought back in-house, user feedback was used to inform both the Libraries Plan, adopted in May 2019, and a refresh of library facilities.

It was noted that consultants had been commissioned to produce a report on the Council’s libraries, which had informed the Libraries Plan. It was questioned whether the consultant’s work had also been taken into account when forming proposals for consultation. In response it was advised that the consultation report had been taken into account as part of a wide range of information used to inform the process, including the number of books issued, digital facilities, the location of libraries in the borough and the level of maintenance required on each building.

In response to a question about whether the Cabinet report would include an options appraisal, it was advised that this had been included in the initial plan, but due to the pre-election period and the political nature of the decision, it was likely that the decision would be delegated to the Cabinet Member in consultation with the Interim Executive Director for Place, with further information published after the pre-election period had concluded.

It was highlighted by a number of Committee Members that it was difficult to reach a conclusion on the preferability of any of the options, as it was not clear from the information provided what the Council’s vision was for its library service. In response, it was advised that the Council’s libraries had seen an increase in membership during the lockdown, despite the public not being able to physically access the service. In recent years there had also been a huge update to the digital services offered within the library service. The consultation had indicated that the Service meant different things for different people, but the Council needed to find a way to deliver the financial savings, which would necessitate looking at alternative methods of delivery.

When the Committee previously looked at libraries (10 February 2020), it had been mentioned that the possibility of using technology to allow out of hours access to library facilities was being explored. As such it was questioned whether this had been progressed.  It was confirmed that the Open Plus system had been installed at both Selsdon and Norbury libraries, giving the opportunity for out of hours access to residents. In order for the Open Plus system to be rolled out in other libraries, it would require additional capital investment.

Regarding the possibility of increasing the availability of new books and electronic resources, which would drive up membership, it was advised the Council had joined a libraries consortium of 17 authorities to purchase books. As well as providing residents access to over 6 million books it also allowed access to a range of additional online materials such as e-books, audio books and online training.

A suggestion was made that an ongoing aim should be to grow the service, including making it easier for residents to sign up as library members. The Cabinet Member advised that the Council had always strived to grow the membership of the library service and this would continue to be an ambition going forward.

It was highlighted that 12% of the responders to the consultation had indicated that they would be unable to access any other library than one of those identified as at risk of closure. As such, it was questioned whether there was any analysis of these responders and if there would be any alternative provision. It was advised that further analysis was needed to understand why these respondents would not be able to access other libraries, but this would be dependent on whether their permission had been given for further contact from the Council. There was existing provision including the home library service, a befriending service and online resources that may help support these respondents to continue accessing library services.

In response to a question about the baseline for a viable library service, it was confirmed that there was no threshold, with a range of factors taken into account as part of the decision making process. Once the budget reduction of £500,000 had been confirmed, it was quickly realised that the service would need to be rationalised. The five libraries at risk of closure were those with the lowest book issues, the lowest rate of digital access, had significant maintenance issues and had other libraries in the vicinity.

It was questioned why the operational costs for the South Norwood Library were based on the new site, when the consultation was based on the existing building. It was advised that the current library building in South Norwood required a lot of work and a capital investment was needed to get the new site ready as a library. There was a number of possible options for the library service in South Norwood, which would be informed by the consultation process. 

Councillor Clive Fraser, a Ward Member for South Norwood, thanked the Cabinet Member for his engagement with the South Norwood councillors and highlighted that others options to library closure should be explored. There also needed to be a holistic approach used for the library service as they had a much wider impact than simply book lending, through influencing people’s learning and knowledge as well as helping to support local high streets.

It was confirmed that since the library service had been brought back in-house following the collapse of the contractor, Carillion, £5m of capital funding had been invested into the service. This funding had paid for new equipment, high speed broadband as well as refurbishing Norbury and Selsdon libraries. At present, all libraries had high speed broadband access and it was hoped that further investment could be made in the future, although this would be dependent on the financial circumstances of the Council

The Committee reached the view that the lack of an options appraisal to accompany the consultation made it difficult to make an informed opinion on the options presented in the report. Other options were suggested by the Committee, in addition to those included in the report, such as using a co-design approach with community groups that could take into consideration existing constraints. Another option would be to have a limited number of flagship libraries, with the opening times of other libraries based on their usage. The Committee was thanked for these suggestion, with it highlighted that the consultation was being used as a form of co-design.

It was questioned whether there was any abortive costs should the five libraries close. It was advised that there would not be any abortive costs from the closure. There had been a cost to install high speed broadband, but this equipment could be utilised across other sites.

The Chair highlighted to the Committee that the consultation was not formally about the closure of libraries and should that decision be pursued, then there was a statutory requirement to undertake a further range of consultation.

The Committee reached the conclusion that library closure should only be considered as a last resort, if no other viable options could be identified. Of the other options included in the report, it was difficult to reach a conclusion without further information on which to make an informed judgement. No dissent was raised against the principle of outsourcing the running of the library service to a social enterprise, but if this option was chosen the Council would need to have sufficient capacity in place to design the contract specification and monitor delivery.

The Committee agreed that the second phase of the consultation process should include a more detailed options appraisal setting out the savings expected for each option, the staffing impact and the criteria used to assess the options. It was also agreed that any further consultation needed to set out the Council’s vision for the library service.

At the conclusion of this item the Chair thanked the Cabinet Member and officers present for their engagement with the questions of the Committee.


Following the discussion of the budget proposals, the Scrutiny and Overview Committee agreed that the following conclusions would be reported to Cabinet for its consideration:-

  1. The Committee concluded that any consultation on the provision of the libraries service needed to be based on an underlying vision for the service and that the vision needed to be clearly defined in the consultation process.
  2. The Committee concluded that the option to close five libraries needed to be a last resort and should only be pursued if it was not possible to achieve the required savings through other options for delivery of the libraries service.
  3. The Committee was unable to reach a conclusions on the preferability of the other three options. Instead it concluded that a thorough options appraisal was needed to make a judgement on which of these options was included in the next stage of the consultation.


The Scrutiny and Overview Committee agreed to make the following recommendations to the Cabinet Member for Culture and Regeneration for further consideration:-

  1. The Committee recommends that any future consultation documents on the libraries service clearly outlines the Council’s vision for libraries and how it had informed the process.
  2. The Committee recommends that further work is undertaken to prepare a detailed appraisal of any options put forward for the next stage of the consultation, to ensure that those responding could make an informed decision. This should include consideration of:-

·      hybrid options

·      a co-design approach for the redevelopment of the future library service

The assessment criteria for the options appraisal also needed to be clearly defined at the start of the process and published with the second phase consultation


Supporting documents: